Ask the Right Questions

Aristotle taught us to ask the right questions, and I fear that many advocates for Terri, of whom I am one, have been asking entirely the wrong questions. The May 2005 issue of First Things has an excellent article by Robert T. Miller called "The Legal Death of Terri Schiavo". In the introduction, he states:

"Despite all the public outrage at the horror of an innocent woman being starved to death, despite the desperate and pathetic pleas of her parents, despite even a special act of Congress requiring the federal courts to intervene, those courts have let stand an order that Terri Schiavo die – or so many usually informed commentators have said. Once again, judges have ignored the plain meaning of democratically enacted laws in order to enforce their own moral values – or so we have been told."

"Unfortunately,it isn’t true. The simple fact is that Terri Schiavo’s legal rights were never once violated. The result in the case was so unjust not because the courts ignored the law but because they followed it. The laws of Florida, like those of most states, specifically allow that, in cases like Schiavo’s, some people may decide that others ought to die."

Prof. Miller goes on to demonstrate how Terri’s parents, the Schindlers, were fighting a battle regarding federal law, which held no water, and that while what Mr. Schiavo and Judge Greer did was immoral, it was not illegal.

While I’m often asked about medical and bioethical issues by friends, I often steered clear of Terri Schiavo’s medical status. It’s a mess, with "he said, she said" finger-pointing, shifting opinions, and convenient "memories" about what Terri thought about end-of-life issues. She evidently had a rough marriage, and the whole nation got to see a family train wreck with bad judgment on both sides.

In avoiding the morass of Terri’s diagnoses, one clear issue remains: due process. Mr. Schiavo did promise to provide a certain level of medical care to Terri upon getting the malpractice awards, but did not follow up on that promise, which included neurological diagnostics that may have shed light on what exactly was going wrong with her and what her odds of rehabilitation would be. Much ink and webpage-space has been expended on this, but we still don’t know much because Mr. Schiavo stonewalled us.

Perhaps Terri was incurable, but the media did quote some dissenters in the neurology community, and without the modicum of care that Mr. Schiavo should have provided but did not, we cannot say whether those dissenters were right or not.

If there was a convicted serial rapist on death row, and some experts disputed that some forensic tests were not performed, and could bear on the convict’s guilt, would that not raise a stink in the media? I do not want to say what Terri or Mr. Schiavo really thought or meant to do, I just want an assurance of due process, and while I’d see the ACLU fighting for the right of a serial killer to live, a sick woman who cannot speak for herself is starved out of hand when her caretaker did not do the things he promised to do for her, and in the face of dissent amongst experts in the field.

I’m not saying that those dissenters, had they examined her, would have found any hope for Terri’s recovery, but that gap in care worries me.

I hope that the debate will shift from finger-pointing and chattering about autopsies to the more fundamental issues of protecting the rights and lives of patients. This debate as been cast in the media’s favorite "red vs. blue" die, but what about the disability rights advocates who argued for Terri, like Not Dead Yet?

What of the voices from Judaism that opposed pulling Terri’s feeding tube (e.g., here)? I attended a lecture last semester by a professor at Duquesne University who wrote a book comparing Catholic and Jewish bioethical tradition (he’s Jewish, by the way), and he cited Judaism’s very strict protection of dying patients, an interest that has been only intensified by experiences such as the Holocaust and the preceding T4 Program.

In short, there are many voices that objected to Terri’s treatment. In part, these voices have been silenced by the usualbiases of many reporters (as soon as Santorum and Bush weighed in on the issue, it became another right-vs.-left story).

However, much of the problem has been with Terri’s advocates, who have not hit the real issues of due process and protections of rights while muddying the waters with contradictory medical evidence, accounts of what Terri "would have wanted", and so forth. In doing so, we have also snuffed out perspectives from the disabled, the vulnerable ones in our country, and also from Jewish leaders, who are anything but Republican Christians, and who have very acute memories about where "quality of life" discussions may take us if we do not look out for our most vulnerable brethren.